I came to know director Ramin Bahrani by his early dramas—Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo. Those films had immigrant characters trying to find their niche in an America that marginalized them as they worked and struggled to eke out a living. Bahrani’s documentary, 2nd Chance, is a departure from those early dramas. With 2nd Chance we still get Bahrani’s fascination with America; however, this time he chooses a documentary format to tell a very American story. Another major shift involves who Bahrani chooses as the focal point of his documentary—Richard Davis.
Davis is a businessman, an entrepreneur, the inventor of the concealable bulletproof vest, and as if that were not enough, a showman filmmaker. His journey in pursuit of “The American Dream” began fifty years ago when he opened a pizza shop. An employee in his pizza shop was the victim of an armed robbery while making a delivery. Shortly thereafter, Davis confronted the armed robbers which led to a shootout. That confrontation, and the catching on fire of his pizza shop—a rather murky event, one must add—led Davis to tinker and develop a concealable bulletproof vest. Davis’ life, as Bahrani beautifully puts it, is a metaphor for the United States— “absurd and frightening.” Davis inventively designed a catalogue promoting his vests using female models. He called the catalogue “Sex and Violence.” He then produced hyperkinetic shootout videos that were shown to police departments across the United States in an effort to promote the vests. Police departments bought the vests; hook, line, and sinker. That led Davis to open a vest factory in a small Michigan town wherein he became the town’s most influential figure. Eighty percent of the town worked for Davis.
Davis became famous for shooting himself 192 times in his videos so as to show the effectiveness and authenticity of his vests. His personality exudes a type of unadorned honesty, a real American—if I am allowed the pun—straightshooter. As 2nd Chance develops, we begin to realize that Davis is anything but a straightshooter. It would be too revealing to go into the particulars, but Davis is involved in sordid affairs. They range from paying off individuals in order to avoid criminal charges to privileging profits over the lives of those who use his vests.
Bahrani channels great documentarians such as Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. As with Morris and Herzog, Bahrani presents us with an eccentric figure who is both obsessive and flawed. It is as if Davis’ flaws drive his obsessions. In Davis’ case, the tragic flaw is a narcissism that comes through and through his life story and his interviews with Bahrani. Bahrani quite effectively captures a subtext of American masculinity and gun fetishization through the figure of Davis.
In the end one comes to a startling realization. Davis was not just selling vests to police departments, the military, or even American presidents. He was selling himself in his promotional vest videos, a vision of himself, a vision of a Dirty Harry-esque/vigilante justice America. Davis’ videos with plots involving cop-killing hippies and subversive types had a certain allure for those who bought his vests. These visions of “American Carnage” have long been around. Bahrani’s 2nd Chance gives us yet another example of an individual profiting from this dark American narrative.
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